Poarch Band Stops Controversial Casino Expansion on Hickory Ground Sacred Site

Gale Courey Toensing
10/17/12

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians has agreed to halt construction on the controversial expansion of its Wind Creek Casino Wetumpka at Hickory Ground in Alabama—a historic Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribal town and an established archaeological site that includes a sacred burial ground of Muscogee ancestors. In a press release issued late on October 16, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said that a meeting took place on October 8 between Muscogee Principal Chief George Tiger and Poarch Chairman Buford L. Rolin and other Poarch representatives to talk about the adversarial relationship that has developed between the two nations over Poarch’s ongoing construction of the Wind Creek Casino Wetumpka.

According to the press release, Principal Chief Tiger's legal counsel, Yonne Tiger, received an email on the evening of October 15 from Poarch Band Attorney General Venus McGhee saying construction would be halted on October 16 at 5 p.m., “which will include removing construction personnel, park equipment, and measures to ensure the safety of the site. The decision to halt construction was made to show a measure of good faith from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians after a request from Principal Chief George Tiger,” the press release said. Hickory Ground, known as Oce Vpofa in the Muscogee language, was the last capitol of the National Council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The sacred place includes a ceremonial ground, a tribal burial ground and individual graves. The current day Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s ancestors lived and were buried at Hickory Ground before the tribe was forced from its Alabama homeland on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma as a result of U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830—America’s legalization of ethnic cleansing. On October 12, four days after the tribal leaders met, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes voted unanimously on a resolution supporting the efforts “of the lineal descendants of Ocevpofv (Hickory Ground) Ceremonial Ground/Tribal Town to halt the desecration and all future desecrations of Ocevpofv (Hickory Ground) Ceremonial Ground/Tribal Town located in Wetumpka, Alabama, as should be afforded protection under Federal Laws.”

The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes represents the united tribal governments of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations and more than 750,000 blood descendants of aboriginal peoples from the southeastern United States, the resolution says. The Inter-Tribal Council’s sharply-worded resolution says the Poarch Band, “a recently federally recognized tribe, is currently occupying” the historic sacred site of the original Hickory Ground community, has “desecrated” the original sacred site “and is currently in violation of federal historic preservation laws as well as violating Muscogee (Creek) traditions. The Poarch Band has excavated more than 60 human remains and associated funerary objects, including the remains of seven Mekkos (Chiefs) that were buried in the arbors of the original ceremonial ground.” Brendan Ludwick, the Muscogee Nation’s attorney, told Indian Country Today Media Network that he thinks the Inter-Tribal council’s resolution was key in persuading the Poarch Band to stop construction. “I think the halt is a response to the resolution and also to all the media attention we’ve brought to this issue, more than anything else,” Ludwick said.

According to the press release, discussions between the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Poarch Band will continue and construction will not proceed until further notice. Chief Tiger said a future meeting is being scheduled in the coming weeks to discuss a resolution to this matter. But some tribal citizens— both Muscogee and Poarch—are skeptical. Muscogee citizens have voiced their opposition to the desecration of Hickory Ground on Facebook pages, including Save Hickory Ground and Hickory Ground War. William Bailey, a former Poarch Band council member, told ICTMN that he thinks the project was stopped now to avoid discussion about it at the National Congress of American Indians’ annual conference October 21-26, “because there’s been national attention brought to it.” He said he’s always opposed the desecration of Hickory Ground “from the day we purchased the land and they started building the casino and digging up the graves.

The tribal chairman at the time convinced the rest of the council that they weren’t Native American graves; they were goat bones and stuff like that.” Bailey said he was on the council in 1998 and left after a short while “because I couldn’t stand those people lying.” He said there are many Poarch members who feel the same way he feels, but there isn’t much they can do to effect change. “They took a lot of our rights away. They got a constitutional amendment passed around six years ago but they didn’t explain anything about what we were voting on. Now members only vote for tribal council members at elections,” he said. According to the Poarch Constitution, the general council (tribal members) can vote to elect, recall and remove elected tribal officials; exercise the powers of initiative and referendum; and amend the constitution. The tribal council reserves to itself the right to “engage in any business that will further the economic well-being of the members of the tribe, or undertake any programs for the economic advancement of the people.” Bailey said that at a meeting a few weeks ago attended by around 300 tribal members “more than 90 percent of them were against the project.

We asked if we could vote on it and the council said yes, but we have to do a petition and follow strict rules that we don’t know anything about. But that’s our next step. We have to talk to a lawyer and find out how to go about it.” Rolin was not available for comment. Poarch public relations spokesperson Sharon Delmar confirmed that a general council meeting took place on October 4, but declined to comment on the number of tribal members who attended or whether they expressed support or opposition for the casino expansion on Hickory Ground. She said negotiations between the two tribes would continue. “Our tribal leaders have a meeting scheduled with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in the next few days. We will have a comment after that meeting,” Delmar said. Bailey said the conflict between the two tribes is “a sad story” that needs to be resolved. “Otherwise, it’s going to be hard for any tribal member to go anywhere in Indian country where they can hold their head up,” Bailey said. “They’re not going to be able to say they’re from Poarch anymore.”

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